A Pall That Has My Shape

August 1, 2012

“I never met a man I didn’t like,” said Woody Guthrie. As great a person as the fascist killer might have been, and as wonderfully humanist as that expression is, I can’t help but thinking that he’s just wrong. Maybe it’s misplaced self-loathing or over-active misanthropy, but a Pedro the Lion song sums it up rather better for me: “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”

“Humans contain multitudes,” a phrase I’m quite fond of, and use to excuse faults in people I admire, or to grudgingly compliment people I dislike. And there’s undoubtedly a truth to it; good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. But what if there’s a simpler truth at the heart of it? That there are not easily sortable good and bad people; there are just people, and sometimes they do good things, other times bad. That it is impossible– or, more generously, a fool’s errand– to attempt to sort a person by the way they present themselves outwardly. That we often do bad things for base reasons or for no reason at all, and that some of us are just better at hiding it than others. That given the chance we would, all of us, be capable of truly horrifying stuff. That we shouldn’t be surprised if once someone really got to know us they wanted nothing to do with us.

Writing a song about a serial killer, Sufjan Stevens said, “In my best behavior I am really just like him.” We shouldn’t read this as sympathy for a killer, or a partial excuse for evil deeds. We should instead understand it as a gesture of humility, of self-righteousness taking a seat. We should recognize ourselves in monstrosity, not to absolve it, but to warn ourselves. Even the most engaged citizen can be a racist; a generous philanthropist an abuser; a saint a bigot.

We’re often told that we shouldn’t put on masks, that we shouldn’t bottle things, be genuine. And of course that is true. To a point. The often overlooked fact of the matter is that our masks make us bearable to one another, and when we let ego and id run rampant we display our “true” colors. Our masks are just as true as the things they cover, for they represent a real desire to abdicate the self for the benefit of others. And perhaps if we’re diligent they can cease to cover anything at all; perhaps the self can be rewired. The masks are the glue of society. Their inherent falseness– a falseness we all recognize and go along with anyway– is the very thing that makes them possible. We accept apologies even when still furious because the mask of apology and forgiveness is the act that opens the space for actual reconciliation. Let the mask slip too often and we risk having said of us what Hugo said of Napoleon, “It is a sorry thing for a man to leave behind him a pall that has his shape.”